“The president always knows”

Why won't anyone ask Bush when he first learned of Valerie Plame's identity? That's one question he doesn't need to wait for the special prosecutor to answer.

Topics: George W. Bush, Karl Rove

"The president always knows"

Ever since the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson in 2003, the media has focused on whether President Bush would fire any people in his administration who were involved. Recent coverage has focused on the role, and fate, of deputy chief of staff Karl Rove. On July 31, Knight Ridder reporter Ron Hutcheson — in an article that typifies the frame the media has imposed on the story — speculated that “the president soon could face a painful choice between protecting his trusted aide or forcing his resignation to limit political damage.”

Last week, Associated Press reporter Pete Yost wrote a relatively aggressive article about potential conversations between Rove and Bush about Valerie Wilson. But Yost’s piece considers only the possibility that Rove lied about his involvement in the leak to Bush after the fact. Yost writes, “Whether Rove shaded the truth with Bush two years ago is a potential political problem.”

Yet, strangely, even the most probing report has refused to raise the possibility that George W. Bush had any advance knowledge of or direct involvement in the leak. It’s an irresponsible choice, considering Bush has more experience as a political operative than as president of the United States.

Most prominent is Bush’s role as a powerful force in his father’s presidential campaigns. His principal duty was enforcing strict loyalty to George H.W. Bush from everyone involved. Conservative strategist Mary Matalin, who held senior positions in the 1988 and 1992 campaigns, described Bush as “his father’s trusted consigliere.” George W., for his part, embraced the role and made it clear that anyone who crossed his father could expect retribution. In 1990, he told writer Ann Grimes, “I was the enforcer when I thought things were going wrong. I had the ability to go and lay down some behavioral modification.”

Bush had started his career as a political operative nearly two decades earlier, when he left the Texas Air National Guard to work on the Alabama Senate campaign of Winton Blount. (Even at the young age of 26, the younger Bush was reportedly one of Blount’s top four advisors.)

As one might expect, much of Bush’s work for his father’s presidential campaigns was done behind the scenes. Yet it’s clear he was steeped in political minutiae and imposed few limits on what he was willing to do to get the job done. In 1986, veteran reporter Al Hunt predicted that Jack Kemp would receive the 1988 Republican presidential nomination instead of George H.W. Bush. When George W. saw Hunt dining with his wife and 4-year-old son at a Mexican restaurant in Dallas, he went up to their table and said, “You fucking son of bitch. I won’t forget what you said and you’re going to pay a fucking price for it.” Bush didn’t apologize until 13 years later, when the incident resurfaced in the context of his own presidential campaign.

In 1987, the George H.W. Bush campaign gave unusually close access to Newsweek reporter Margaret Warner. That resulted in a cover story titled “Fighting the Wimp Factor,” in which Warner discussed “the potentially crippling handicap” that the senior Bush wasn’t tough enough for the job. George W. was incensed. He called the magazine and “told reporters that his father’s campaign would no longer talk to Newsweek.” According to White House reporter Thomas DeFrank, George W. told him that Newsweek was “out of business.” In his anger, however, Bush “went somewhat beyond the authorized message.” The following day, a Bush campaign spokesman announced, “We’re not cutting them [Newsweek] or anybody else off from their efforts to cover the campaign.” George W., apparently, has never gotten over the incident. In his memoir, “A Charge to Keep,” published more than a decade later, he wrote, “My blood pressure still goes up when I remember the cover.”

After his father was elected president in 1988, Bush was placed in charge of a group called the Silent Committee (aka the “scrub group”), which was made up of “about fifteen blood-oath Bushies,” according to the Texas Monthly. The purpose of the group was “to ‘scrub’ potential appointees for their loyalty and past service to Bush.” The Washington Post noted at the time that George W. had a “somewhat more developed sense of political loyalty than even his father.”

You Might Also Like

Although Bush left Washington after the campaign concluded, his role as loyalty enforcer remained largely unchanged. In November 1991, for example, then White House chief of staff John Sununu told a reporter the president had “ad-libbed” an ill-advised line during a speech about credit card interest rates. The younger Bush was infuriated that Sununu didn’t defend his father. George W. told another White House staffer, “We have a saying in our family: If a grenade is rolling by the Man, you dive on it first. The guy violated the cardinal rule.”

George W. was dispatched to Washington to deal with the Sununu situation. He met with Sununu and told him he should resign. On Dec. 3, 1991, Sununu — also facing criticism for his misuse of government vehicles — stepped down. Asked about the confrontation, George W. would only say, “The conversations between me and Mr. Sununu are going to be private. I talked to him, and then he and Dad reached an agreement.”

The effort to discredit Joseph Wilson by exposing his wife as an undercover CIA agent is, for George W. Bush, entangled with the politics of Bush-family loyalty. Wilson, a trusted emissary of the elder Bush, served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, from 1988 to 1991. During Desert Shield, Bush appointed Wilson to the post of acting ambassador. Wilson led negotiations that resulted in the release of several hundred American hostages, and as Wilson was quick to note, the president was pleased with his service. Bush sent Wilson a letter on Jan. 30, 1991, which read in part: “Dear Joe … We appreciate your service to your country and your courageous leadership when you were in Baghdad … Many thanks.”

So how did the current President Bush react when he learned that Joe Wilson — once a member of his father’s administration — was using what was learned on a CIA trip to undermine Bush’s rationale for the second Iraq war?

It’s a question the media has been unwilling to ask.

Reporters have asked President Bush if he believed the Justice Department could conduct an independent investigation of the Plame leak. They’ve asked him if he believed any of his staffers would be found guilty of a crime in the affair. They’ve asked him if he would fire anyone found to be involved. And they have repeatedly asked him about Rove’s role.

In response to all of these questions, Bush has deferred giving complete answers until the conclusion of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s criminal investigation.

But the media refuses to ask two questions that President Bush could not delay answering until he “finds out the facts”: Mr. President, prior to July 14, 2003 (the day Robert Novak’s column appeared), were you aware that Valerie Wilson was a CIA agent? And did you discuss her role with any other member of your administration?

The media is so far sticking with the idea that President Bush was an innocent bystander. Fitzgerald doesn’t seem to share its perspective. Bush was interviewed by the special prosecutor for more than an hour. Floyd Abrams, an attorney who represented Time magazine in the case, said, “It’s hard to believe the special prosecutor would be burdening the president with an interview unless they had testimony to the effect that the president had information.”

No one outside the White House knows for certain the extent of President Bush’s involvement. But one thing is clear: The press’s assumption of ignorance is misguided, especially in light of George W.’s long history as a political operative. Allan Lichtman, a noted presidential historian, says the “presumption in presidential politics” should be “that the president always knows.” It’s not too late for responsible reporters to ask the right questions.

Judd Legum is research director at the Center for American Progress in Washington and co-editor of the Progress Report.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>